Taliban authorities allowed a Qatari charter flight to leave for Doha from the Kabul airport Thursday, the first flight for evacuees to take off since the United States ended its military operation in Afghanistan on August 31.
“Today, the United States government facilitated the departure of U.S citizens and lawful permanent residents on a chartered Qatar Airways flight from Hamid Karzai International Airport. We can confirm that flight has safely landed in Qatar,” said National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne in a statement. “The Taliban have been cooperative in facilitating the departure of American citizens and lawful permanent residents on charter flights from HKIA. They have shown flexibility, and they have been businesslike and professional in our dealings with them in this effort. This is a positive first step.”
Horne added that the U.S. will “continue these efforts to facilitate the safe and orderly travel of American citizens, lawful permanent residents, and Afghans who worked for us and wish to leave Afghanistan.”
Both Reuters and AFP reported the flight carried 113 passengers, among them 21 American citizens or legal residents, 43 Canadians and 13 Dutch nationals, their foreign ministries said.
One of the evacuees seemed relieved to leave Kabul behind.
"I didn't even fall asleep and we landed," said one Canadian passenger who gave her name only as Elaha, according to AFP. "The situation in Kabul was unpredictable and very uncomfortable."
Upon landing in Doha, the passengers, including several children, boarded an airport bus, which took them to a holding facility where they will wait for flights to their home countries, AFP reported.
One of the passengers told the Agence France-Presse his family had little notice from the U.S. State Department about the flight.
"We got in contact with the State Department, they gave me a call this morning and said to go to the airport," said the father, who asked not to be named.
Qatar's special envoy Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani spoke to reporters at the Hamid Karzai International Airport Thursday, stressing that it was not an evacuation flight but stating that Americans and other Westerners were on board.
The Qatari envoy said there may be another flight Friday and people should “feel that this is normal.”
Speaking alongside al-Qahtani, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said that experts from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have been working to get airport systems back up and running for commercial flights.
Mujahid said he expected the entire airport operation to be in place soon, enabling both domestic as well as international flights to resume.
In a statement to VOA, a State Department spokesperson declined to provide additional details regarding the Thursday flight out of Kabul.
“As we have said, our efforts to assist U.S. citizens and others to whom we have a special commitment are ongoing, but we aren’t in a position to share additional details at this time,” the spokesperson said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Doha, earlier this week seeking support for the evacuation of Americans and at-risk Afghans left behind in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover.
The administration said it also has been working with the Qataris to get flights operational from Kabul.
“We're working through all of these components, and it's the reason why the secretary of State is on the ground, in the region, discussing and negotiating as we speak,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told VOA Wednesday.
Thousands left behind
However, there are many at-risk Afghans as well as some Americans still stranded in Afghanistan, said Hazami Barmada, an independent humanitarian assisting in evacuation efforts. Estimates vary of how many Afghans qualify for special visas for their work with the United States or because of their status as vulnerable groups but they are believed to number in the thousands.
As of Thursday evening local time in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, at least one flight of 705 people, including nine Americans, nine U.S. legal permanent residents and 170 holders of the Special Immigrant Visa are still waiting for the green light to depart, Barmada told VOA. SIVs, as they’re commonly referred to, are visas for Afghans working as interpreters and other positions supporting the 20-year U.S. operation there.
“We understand that there's a lot of negotiations happening currently between the State Department and the Taliban from what we understand, through the negotiator. And we're really hoping that our flights are not left behind, especially since they've already had the promise of departure,” Barmada said.
It is unclear how many charter flights are awaiting departure in Mazar-e-Sharif. A State Department official said they are aware of only two charter planes in Afghanistan trying to leave.
On Wednesday U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid the blame for the delayed departures on the Taliban.
“As of now, the Taliban are not permitting the charter flights to depart,” Blinken told reporters at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. “We’ve made clear to all parties, we made clear to the Taliban, that these charters need to be able to depart, and we continue every day, virtually every hour, to work on that.”
Concerns regarding foreign nationals unable to leave Afghanistan are “misplaced,” VOA was told Thursday by Bilal Karimi, a member of Taliban Cultural Commission.
“Routine commercial flights remain suspended but as soon as they are resumed anyone intending to leave or come into the country and has with valid documents, passports and visas will be free to do so,” he said.
Charter flights confusion
While the U.S. insists it has no role in preventing flights from departing, the administration also maintains that the lack of American personnel on the ground and inability to verify passengers’ documentation and flight manifests tare among the main reasons these flights have not been able to take off.
“So, a number of these planes, they may have a handful of American citizens, but they may have several hundred individuals where we don't have manifests for them, we don't know what the security protocols are for them, we don't know what their documentation is,” the White House press secretary told reporters Wednesday.
“Are we going to allow a plane with hundreds of people, where we don't know who they are, we don't know what security protocols have been put in place, to land on a U.S. military base?” Psaki asked.
Blinken acknowledged "a fair amount of confusion" around charter flights and said the United States government is "working to do everything in our power to support those flights and to get them off the ground."
The Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15, marking the end of a stunning military campaign that overran most of Afghanistan.
The return to power of the fundamentalist movement has worried thousands of Afghans, mostly educated and those who worked with international forces, that they may face Taliban reprisals. These locals want to leave the country, but Taliban leaders are urging them to remain and help them in the reconstruction of Afghanistan to prevent an economic meltdown.
The Taliban announced their “caretaker” government Tuesday, but some of their controversial actions, including an alleged crackdown on journalists and anti-Taliban protests, already have raised doubts about whether the Islamist movement will live up to its commitments to protect human rights and not retaliate against former Afghan government officials.
VOA's Nike Ching contributed to this report.